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Commentary: The College of Charleston must make the right (very difficult) decision

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The fall is usually a magical time for those of us in higher education. As a professor at the college of Charleston I relish it. A new academic year brings back old friends, colleagues, and students, and we welcome freshmen eager for new experiences inside and outside of the classroom. Campuses buzz with a vibrant and addictive energy.

Not this year.

Well-intentioned universities across the country have reopened face-to-face instruction, hoping to provide students with an authentic college experience while mitigating the spread of the biggest global pandemic we have faced in over 100 years. They have media campaigns and mask policies. But many universities have already failed: The gamble of fall classes is not working.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the center of a cluster outbreak of COVID-19 shortly after reopening. Down the road, North Carolina State had the same thing happen. Both universities quickly pivoted to virtual learning for the fall. The safety of students, faculty and staff is not a guarantee right now.

It has not been for a lack of trying. Folks in higher education have been diligently working for months to make college campuses safe. The College of Charleston, for example, has implemented a mandatory mask policy, a partial testing protocol and purchased a slew of campus technologies to bring us “Back on the Bricks.” Faculty have been preparing all summer, off contract, for both face-to-face and virtual classes. After months of living through a global pandemic, students want to come back. We all do.

Local campus leaders like Jeremy Turner, president of the Student Government Association, have been actively getting the word out through a “Student Pledge” that individual behaviors are paramount to keeping us all safe. I am proud of our campus community.

But the recent experience of other universities has shown that conscientious planning and wishful thinking won’t work. We can’t blame undergraduate students, or young people in general, for spreading COVID-19. We need to take collective responsibility and action.

Institutions like the College of Charleston are faced with an almost impossible situation. Reopen and hope and pray we don’t become the next UNC, NC State or Notre Dame. Or go virtual all semester and risk the dire financial consequences of students dropping out and universities footing the bill for housing, food vendors, parking and reduced tuition.

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Framing the impossible decision to reopen the college as a zero-sum game misses another critical component: the city of Charleston. Bringing back 10,000 students and hundreds of faculty and staff has the potential for a massive impact on our community, our local economy and on our collective health.

Community infection rates will likely surge if campus cases surge. MUSC and Roper may become overburdened. The social impacts will fall hardest on the already disadvantaged, particularly urban, impoverished African Americans. That’s been Charleston’s history with epidemic diseases.

Most of us hoped that COVID-19 rates would drop over the summer, that high heat and humidity would knock down the virus. We looked for leadership at federal, state and local levels to mitigate the spread through public awareness, social distancing and the enforcement of mask wearing to “flatten the curve.” But that has not happened; Charleston has been a global hot-spot for weeks.

The College of Charleston plans to welcome back students on Sept. 14, but President Andrew Hsu is set to make a final decision on reopening for face-to-face learning later this week. It’s time that university leaders make the right decision for our students, our staff and our community, and keep the college virtual this fall.

This is the only ethical decision that will keep us safe. But it does have broader implications. Public schools and universities will need help from the state Legislature, which for years has steadily defunded higher education.

As a historian of pandemics I don’t want my beloved school to fall on the wrong side of history and risk the lives of thousands of Charlestonians. We can do better, and we must to better.

Jacob Steere-Williams is an associate professor at the College of Charleston.

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